If you were a country, you’d want to be Malaysia. A glam little sauce-pot, with as many cosmo cities as backroad beach haunts, it’s got more history than bowls of Mee Goreng and so much cultural diversity, at times you’ll question if you’re in the east or the west. All in all, Malaysia has all the ingredients for a damn fine good time.
1. Explore Penang’s historic Georgetown
Old world Asia meets its swish modern grandchild in Penang’s Georgetown. Just 8km west of mainland Malaysia and connected by two huge bridges, Georgetown is Penang’s cosmopolitan capital with a historic pulse. From age-worn Chinese temples to gleaming skyscrapers, shabby-chic buildings crumble under the weight of their own historic tales, while Buddhist shrines dance with paper lanterns next to British built forts and Indian spice stores. Defined by diversity, it’s little wonder Georgetown has Unesco World Heritage status. Also dubbed ‘the city of art’, wall murals and decorative floor tiles are as commonplace as rickshaws and fruit stalls. Other highlights include ‘Little India’ for Indian food, saris and jewellery, the sea-licked waterfront and night views from Penang Hill, accessed by Penang Hill Railway - a funicular railway.
2. Get fat on Malaysian food
In Malaysia, Penang’s Hawker Street is street food supremacy. From Char Kway Teow (a popular noodle dish) to Roti Chanai, each chef showcases their own unique flavours. The options are endless and the ambience electric. Air conditioning there is not, but you're guaranteed to find an authentic (albeit balmy) street scene.
If you’re after a good feed in mainland Kuala Lumpur, Changkat Bukit Bintang is a foodie’s dream boulevard, with anything from Spanish hog roasts to German schnitzels. Of course, if you’re hankering for authentic Malay, there’s plenty of that too. Bijan Restaurant dishes out enough Laksa to satisfy even the most critical of food connoisseurs, while Jalan Alor’s your go-to for the full-blown street food experience. Plastic chairs and general chaos ensues - cheerfully cheap and equally delicious, your stomach will think it’s Christmas. And if you want to blow your mind as well as your taste buds, descend on The Rabbit Hole. Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, its three floors house a nature-themed al-fresco area, a graffiti art bar, a Roman-themed private nightclub, a vintage-style gentleman’s club (complete with hidden speakeasy), a rooftop bar and a futuristic dance club. Phew.
3. Make friends with Borneo’s orang-utans
The flight time from Kuala Lumpur to Borneo is 2 hours and 15 minutes… A mere 135 minutes to put you in the same realm as orang-utans.
Everyone loves these cheeky orange apes. Explore Malaysia's Sepilok Orang Utan Rehab Centre and visit the last wild orang-utans of northern Borneo. The centre specialises in rehabilitating these wonderful hairy gingers back into the wild, and because they live freely within the reserve, they are happy to come and go as they please, although they do usually tune in for feeding time, which is daily at 10am and 3pm. As curious as they are cute, the forest and its peaceful atmosphere is relaxing for both visitors and residents alike (orange or otherwise).
*** From Sandakan there are five public buses which go directly to Sepilok, taking approximately 45 minutes. With return bus times up until 4pm.
4. Shopping? Ringgit on.
Malls, malls and more malls, you must be in Kuala Lumpur. Eight malls are found in the city centre alone, while 20 minutes away, in the greater Klang Valley area, there are 12 additional shopping complexes to keep you occupied.
If you're more of a market peruser, Malaysia's Gaya Street Fair (Kota Kinabalu) is a Sunday must-do. Based in the area of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, sellers are already trading by 6am. It gets hotter and more colourful as the hours tick by; prepare yourself for a bustling hub of street chatter and local culture.
5. Entertain the entire family
Bringing the pint-sized fuss pots? Tantrums are nowhere in sight when little Lego men are involved. Interactive and innovative, Malaysia’s Legoland has life-size figurines, thrilling rides and quirky Lego activities such as building towers then collapsing them with an earthquake simulator; both adults and children will be in make-believe heaven.
Sunway Lagoon Theme Park also entertains the thrill-seekers. There are so many waterslides here, on approach, it looks more like a giant game of snakes and ladders. Into your togs you get. With enormous pools, wave simulators and surf boards, you can cool off under the spurting fountains or jump in a doughnut and amble down the river rapids. From over-water zip lines to manmade waterfalls cascading from the sky, it’s a water playground of epic proportions. Prepare to go home with water-logged wrinkly bits.
6. Lie back and beach
Malaysia's Langkawi Beaches are the kind of sandy havens that make you sigh. It's near enough impossible to resist the perennially blue sea and platinum white sand. Here are our top 3 suggestions:
Pasir Panjang Beach
Redang Island, Terengganu
On the main island of Pulau Redang with white sand clear water, grab your flippers because the snorkelling here will make you take a sharp inhale. Just make sure it's through your mouth.
Tioman Island, Pahang
She’s a tropical beauty, this one. Untouched by very little development, the sand is golden and the water is the same shade of exotic teal as the surrounding vegetation. Don't try and rush things here, life is always set to a cruising speed of slow.
Pasir Tengkorak Beach
Don't be a square daddy-oh – while everyone else dashes to Pantai Cenang on Langkawi’s southwest coast, be different and go north. There’s a stunning 200m and three-tiered waterfall just 15 minutes from the beach. From saltwater to freshwater, nature’s never treated you so well.
7. Flippers on, snorkel in - let’s dive!
If you’d rather be below the water, the island of Sipadan is a diver’s dream location. Warm, calm and with excellent visibility, there’s a smorgasbord of marine life, including more turtles than grains of sand (not quite but almost). The allure of Sipadan is unavoidable, especially for experienced divers. Your know-how is needed here. With 12 dive sites boasting plenty of wall diving and drift dives, the water sits at a pleasant 26 - 30°C and claims fame as one of the big fish capitals of the world. From large schools of Jack to barracudas and bumphead parrotfish, if you know your back roll from The Bends, the Sipadan will definitely deliver the goods.
8. Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur
The squeamish should look away now. A festival of faith and penance, the annual Hindu holiday of Thaipusam sees thousands of devotees follow the procession of a silver chariot from the city of Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves temple. Dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan, many devotees affirm their faith by piercing their bodies with hooks, skewers and spears, including kavadi, which is an elaborately decorated frame weighing up to 100kg and – brace yourself – affixed to an individual’s flesh by sharp metal spikes. Onlookers who can stomach it, will be entranced by the participant’s endurance, lucid dancing and intense celebrations. Just beware of the person next to you, they are likely to explode into an erratic dance move at any given chance. Held in the last week of January (or the first of February depending on the Hindu calendar), this carnival-like festival is a positive celebration of both cultural and religious identity.